• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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We Won’t Find Out Until We Grow

The responses to today’s post (and thank you editor lurkers for coming out from behind the veil), made me think about my idea of what the writing life was like at 20. I was spending my junior year abroad in London, aka running away from the life I failed to achieve at NYU. My dorm room was in Tooting bec, in the south of London, extremely isolated and unfashionable at the time.

A group of girls had gone in together on a flat near the Chelsea Road; they invited me to join but I craved that solitary room. I kept it very spare except for a poster of the Arbus twins.

That year I had two independent studies and I did them on Philip Larkin and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and I read everything they wrote and still love them dearly. Most nights, you could find me drinking bad red wine, eating peanuts out of a cellophane tube, and reading Hardy novels. When I wasn’t in school, I was riding the top of the double decker buses, smoking, and writing in my diary. I made one friend and he no longer speaks to me.

Writing meant everything to me, but I never imagined being a writer, or being published. We didn’t know any writers, those kinds of dreams seemed like they were for other people. I always felt very humble when I read a book. If it was slow or boring or difficult to follow, I always believed the fault was my own. If it was in print, I believed it to have sacred qualities. What I did, all the scribbling in my diary, all the poem fragments, didn’t exist on the same continuum as published works.

My one friend and I used to go to a place that had an open mike poetry reading. We were astonished to discover that in the UK, people were happy to heckle and insult the readers. We went week after week and squealed with delight at the public humiliations thrust upon the poets. It was blood sport. Needless to say, I never got up and read a poem. At twenty, dear readers, I was an amoeba.

What were you?

44 Responses

  1. At twenty? I was a student, worker bee, heavy drinker, whats the word for someone who writes in a diary alot? and slut. While I was changing my major from secondary ed (because I knew I would never be able to keep my hands off the high school boys) to French, it never occurred to me that there was a career in writing or publishing or editing, even though I made beer and cigarette money by writing papers for friends.

    Or the short answer = an idiot. I was an idiot.

  2. Oh God, twenty. At twenty I was having breakfast with the Rolling Stones. I was interviewing Eddie Money in the shower (we were both clothed), Ray Davies in a hotel elevator. I had interviewed U2 and Bruce Springsteen, Ultravox, Tom Verlaine, Siouxsie and the Banshees. r.e.m,, Grace Jones, Psychedelic Furs, B-52s, Pylon, Violent Femmes and dozens of others.

    I’d like to clarify that “interview” is not a euphemism. I was churning out all manner of reviews, stories, and profiles for little magazines called things like “Freebird” and “Dogfood” and “RV.”

    I was penpals with Beverly Smith, mother to Patti. I was always clad in black, drove everywhere hard, in a Volkswagen Squareback. on fumes. They’d raised the legal drinking age from 19 to 21, but those of us who had been legal remained so I drank hard and smoked Balkan Sobranies when I could get them and Lucky Strikes when I could not. Twenty was good.

    Then that autumn I left all that to be an art student in Boston (determined to not be a writer) and so began a long stretch of intense self-loathing that took another twenty years to get over.

  3. I was skipping classes and demonstrations to hang out in Golden Gate Park and listen to the best music ever. One of the classes I was skipping was taught by Wright Morris and it was 30 years before I realized the opportunity I missed to learn from a fantastic writer, who, as he wrote about a character, was “one of those chosen not merely to grow old, but to grow ripe”.

    Then, as Larkin put it so eloquently, “began long stretch of intense self-loathing that took another twenty years to get over”. The why of all that–the sixties and the drop–is a big part of what and why I write.

    But I was only an amoeba when I got the brown tab. So yeah, twenty was awesome.

  4. At 20, transitioned out of foster care and kicked out of college, I found work in a nursing home. Six nights a week, eleven p.m. to seven a.m., wearing a forties vintage nurse’s dress and brown hiking boots, I walked the halls with a flashlight taking care of elderly women, checking for breath among the bedridden, dispensing bedpans, changing adult diapers and monitoring the pulses of Leticia and Faye, Sarah Jane, Esther, Beverly, Beulah and tiny 101 year old Tillie Anthony. I watched lest they fall, crushed pills in applesauce, and cared for them night after night. When they rang the emergency bell I ran to them, listened to their secrets, savored their confidences and became what I had never been to any living soul–indispensable. When they asked, alone and trembling, if I’d be their little girl, their darling girl, I said yes without hesitation.
    After rounds I read the information in their medical charts stored all manageable and orderly in slots above the nurse’s station counter, studied their statistics, noting dates born and where, hometowns lived and how long, number of children, names and birth dates, marital status, and date and age each husband had died. I’d tallied up the dates. Did the math. Most had lived entire lives beyond a husband’s funeral. No space allotted for profession. Being wives had been their full time job.
    I didn’t know then whether I wanted to be a writer or a painter. I only knew I needed to find something in this short life to call my own.

  5. At 20, I was studying acting with the great Stella Adler through NYU, the first year of that program. I was first on the waiting list for the program I really wanted: The “real” theatre program at NYU, downtown with the avant-garde types like Richard Scheckner. They put me in the Stella Adler program. At Stella’s, we couldn’t chew gum and had to sit up straight in our chairs. Right after her classes, I rushed downtown for my cool classes with Richard Scheckner, the ones I was allowed to take, where we sat on the floor and learned about tribal rituals. It was quite a schizophrenic existence and I wasn’t sure where I belonged. Years later, guess who my big influence is: Stella, of course. I still can’t eat popcorn during a movie because we weren’t allowed to do anything automatic while watching other actors. We had to give our full attention to whatever we chose to do, and her discipline stays with me to this day.

  6. Far gone.

  7. At 20, selling cookware door-to-door to pay for college. The experience taught me how to handle rejection, a skill that came in handy when I launched my writing career.

  8. Denver, hippies, midget (oh, little person), booze, no drugs, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, mountains, corn nuts, a train, said I was a Barbra Streisand look alike, he lied, I passed, train, home, college, wished I was back in Denver…..always

  9. A college junior, anorexic, depressed, suicidal English major considering applying to PhD programs (what was I thinking?).

  10. Making up for spending three years in an all-girls prep school.

  11. The short answer? Naive.

  12. Working on a B.A. (but not as hard as I should have), partying (harder than I should have) and writing for the student newspaper – that and obsessing about how big my bum looked.

    • I was doing three of the four things you were doing. (The first three, in case you wonder.) Not a bad combination, but I wish I’d worked harder at the BA–I never did get one. Not yet anyway.

  13. At 19 I took every creative writing class, read poems in poetry readings (well, the same poem over and over), kept journals, and considered myself a writer. I’m not sure what happened after college. Perhaps moving to NYC isn’t a good idea for a writer (or in my case, moving back to NYC area). At 20 I was also in England for a semester….best education I ever received…

  14. At 20, I was semi-talented, hedonistic and not driven enough to bother working at something I was confident I was born to do. Nearly 30 years later, I’m still semi-talented, am now willing to work my ass off and gave pleasure up for Lent.

  15. At 20, I was sitting in my senior advisor’s office at Barnard, in a deep panic about graduating from college and Becoming A Writer.

    I had won two big undergraduate literary prizes, the money therein all I had in the world, and I was deep in fear. My advisor discouraged me. He thought I was bright, brilliant even. And that I should get a job on Wall Street. I can still remember the utter confusion and betrayal I felt at that advice. The fuck was he talking about? “You think you want to be a writer,” he said, “but you have no idea.” No idea of WHAT?? “Let’s put it this way,” he sighed. “Are you in love right now?” At the time, I was in year three of my college romance with a boy I couldn’t imagine living without. “Yes,” I confessed. “Well,” my advisor replied, “in a year, you won’t be.”

    At 21 I was standing on the stage at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, realizing that writing could be a sport and feeding my fragile ego with the idea of kicking ass. And I wasn’t in love anymore. Not with the boy, at least.

  16. At 20 I worked at a place where they created recorded content for telephone information lines (pre-internet). My job: to write content. So, I spent my days FABRICATING horoscopes (including lucky numbers, lucky colors, and things to do/not do today). I also fabricated gourmet recipes, made up trivia questions, and pretty much made up anything else I could fabricate for free so the company could pay me peanuts, and sell my made up stuff.

    I didn’t know it back then…but I was already a fiction writer 😉

  17. I had spent my high school years in a shell only occasionally sticking my head out to the world. But at 20 I was studying journalism and mass communications. A Sophmore and crazy-mad about women in general. At 20 I discovered like-minded friends, drinking and women. I took writing courses and acted in campus plays. I fell in love, madly, passionately, sadly–multiple times. At 20 I fantasized that one day I would be a published writer. At 20 I envisioned all things were possible and I wanted it all. At 20 life was grand. At 20.

  18. My proud parents gave me a powder blue Chevrolet convertable for making Phi Eta Sigma Freshman Honor Society. That car, girls, and discovering wine with bubbles launched me on a downward spiral which bottomed out solidly on scholastic probation.
    Kenneth A. Kobe’s “Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics” (What the hell was all that stuff about) convinced me at age 20 that I was not a chemical engineer, although I toughed it out and got the degree. I graduated, told them to mail me my diploma, went into sales, thence to starting a restaurant, and finally started freelancing a weekly column for the local Hearst newspaper. I now write books that nobody buys. Life is so rewarding.

  19. Betsy, I hear you. I think it took me this long to write a book because I was afraid of hubris. At 20 all I really wanted to do was write and it’s all I thought I could do, but I also thought that I wasn’t really allowed. It was some kind of sin to care so much.

  20. At 20 I was in journalism school. I was an idiot, self-centered (name me a 20 year old who isn’t?) over-achieving student who drank too much, who didn’t appreciate the fact that John Gardner was teaching me American literature, who made incredibly stupid decisions colored by a mass of insecurities, and who worst of all forgot how to be a good friend. It took me awhile, but I recovered from most of that. And my friends forgave me.

  21. living in a tiny attic bedroom in the house of a crazy French family in Dijon, France. Junior year abroad – a 9-month hiatus from boozing ’til I puked, eating ’til I puked, group therapy, a bad boyfriend, etc. – reading collette, stendahl, baudelaire, camus and sartre and the entire series of hardy boy mysteries in French,

  22. The year I was twenty I lived in four different countries: the US, Canada, Uruguay and France. My only responsibilities were my writing, learning the new languages of the countries I was living in while I was abroad and playing on my college’s tennis team while I was in the US.

    I think 20 is the year I get nostalgic about the most often and in fact the novel I’m working on is partly based off of my experiences living abroad.

    Still I wouldn’t want to go back to twenty; I thought I knew everything about everything when in fact I knew not much about anything.

  23. Having dropped out of high school & stormed outta town & off my mother’s farm at 17, I spent a few years falling in love among young Goths & punks & drag queens, practicing Taijiquan & training for a carrier as an opera singer; at 20 I was just discovering college & alcohol & this thing called Literature, my milieu. I would go on to study creative writing with David Weiss, Deborah Tall & Mary Caponegro, but at 20 I was just beginning my apprenticeship in reading as a way of life, reading informed by *ways* of reading & by critical theory & philosophy & languages. 20 changed my life.

  24. I was convinced I was stupid. So, so stupid.

    And about to give birth to my son, who would come into this world with a brain full of abnormalities.

    Then I realized I was wrong.

  25. I was a newlywed, newly graduated (with the wrong degree I found out later), manager of a business I hated. I don’t remember too much besides work that year. I wasn’t writing, wasn’t dancing, I was stagnating.

    Working way too hard at something I despised filled up my personal time. Which wasn’t so bad, until I discovered the company hated me in return.

    Once the ceremonial knives came out to slaughter the scapegoat, I resigned.

    But that came later.

  26. Three weeks before my twentieth birthday, my father beat my mother for the last time. After sitting shiva with my aunt, who started molesting me at seven and at nine-and-a-half told me that unless I wanted us to stop ‘seeing each other’ I needed to lose the Jewfro, I stole a torah cover from shul and traded the silver for bus fare to Savannah, where I fell in love with a hermaphrodite hooker in a brothel attached to a Guyanese dominionist mission. Eleven days later, she traded me to Mother Teresa for three lepers and a rimjob, and I spent my birthday locked inside a coffin on a steamship bound for Bombay.

    Jesus Christ. At twenty I was exactly like every other unremarkable twenty-year-old in my demographic. I’m still like everyone else in my demographic. I look in the reflections of shop windows in the mall and can’t tell which one is me.

  27. Ah, yes… Gotta have the Arbus poster at that age, along with a tattered copy of Patricia Bosworth’s bio of Arbus. Oh, the drama.

  28. I was drinking a lot at Yale, dating cute rugby/crew/ players, backpacking in Europe, showing up for Shakespeare class, but few others, and getting drunk. It was awesome. I was also extremely self-involved, depressed, arrogant, and thoroughly convinced that I could hide my lack of self-esteem beneath cryptic prose and pretend self-awareness. And, yet, I was very hopeful about life and writing. I’m grateful for that time in my life. I also don’t need or want to do it ever again.

  29. half formed.

    i was a good student albeit bored. drinking tequila shots on the weekend. hanging out with my friends, talking non-stop, laughing and being young. men were an enigma although enjoyable. the sex wasn’t great, now that i think about it, just enthusiastic.

    not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  30. Okay, so this is embarrassing: I was happy. Well-adjusted for the first time in my life, out of my crazy, dysfunctional home and away at university having a wonderful time. Great friends, healthy lifestyle, lackluster study habits but getting by with occasional flashes of true passion for what I was learning. Became an existentialist, but not so it really made me want to go off and be weird or isolated. Some interesting boyfriends, some reasonable sex.

    And really really naive about all that was about to come flying at me. Wouldn’t go back for love nor money but I do look back with a certain nostalgic sigh.

    This must doom me to writing really boring stuff.

  31. At twenty I’d been paid for writing, I’d published and sold a zine, seen the birth of punk and worked on a kibbutz. I was back in England with no idea what might happen next, smoking weed and eating magic mushrooms in season. It took me another five years to leave my home town and get myself to London and into art college, where I thought I was all grown up …

  32. Dreams for Other People… I think that would make a great title for a book.

    At 20 I was also in London, the East End, working as a stripper in a table dancing club called Images. I just published part of that chapter from my memoir on The Nervous Breakdown, which I will not link because that’s tacky. Saying that it’s at the Nervous Breakdown dot com and the piece is called Images is only semi-tacky.

    Being a writer was also, for me, a dream other people had. Also, I had too many secrets. I didn’t hope to ever publish them. I was conducting research at the time, interviewing other strippers and prostitutes about their professions. I dreamt of someday publishing this research (which I now have) but never of having the audacity to tell my own story, to speak for myself. I still sometimes think having my memoir published is a pretty outrageous demand to set upon God. Then I think of all the crappy memoirs that are published and absorbed by the universe without so much as creating a ripple in the literary meme. I realize that being published is really not asking for that much, in exchange for all my hard work and all. Of course I would like my work to at least make a ripple, if not a splash.

    At twenty the only visibility I was interested in was satiated by my turn onstage. I’m glad my professional ambitions today could be construed at least slightly less self seeking and more in service to the good of the universe.

  33. I was a diligent English major who wrote long letters and hadn’t yet learned to swear. Hadn’t kissed anyone. I was earnest and abstract and safely wreathed in my own blazing, calm-hearted egotism.

  34. The number of wishes allowedHow many make it a crowdRaphael’s GracesEve’s sundry facesE’s in a word that means proud

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